August 2, 2023
Photos by: Kathy Lim | Words by: James Thoo
Cast of Trouble Came: Kimberley Kiew (Julia), Kimberly Chan (Melanie), Steven Murphy (John), Jon Cancio (Cal), Monil SJ (Patel), Hamza Qaiser (Man at gym)
(Photo above) Weekends, nights, and in between commitments to work and family, the cast of “Trouble Came” rallied around its themes of living unencumbered by the dictates of social media. Writer-director James Thoo (middle) collaborated with his lead actors, very much in the classic tradition of black box productions. PHOTO: KATHY LIM
’VE always been a fan of black box theatre and its inclusivity; the spirit of gathering like-minded individuals around a unifying theme. As a forum, it has given rise to theatrical hits such as Rent, and later, Hamilton, whose impact on global audiences cannot be overstated.
But if there was an unsung cultural victim of the pandemic, it was the independent production scene in Singapore. Much of its supporting ecosystem was eroded by diminished funding, and an exodus of expat theatregoers to their home countries.
Yet its empathetic, nuanced nature — compared to the commerce-first drive of blockbusters — is critical to presenting new, original ideas that provoke thought. Ideas whose success is not solely measured by ticket sales, but how they elevate public discourse about subjects such as mental health.
Because I am also a fan of paradigm-shredding artists like Robert Rodriguez (Rebel Without a Crew) and Kevin Smith (Clerks) — and don’t like the idea of my dreams or career ambitions being determined by anybody else — I wanted Trouble Came first to entertain and uplift. I wanted it to be a visceral connection between artists and audience.
The comedy’s bare-bones nature — free of gimmicks and artifice — would allow viewers to focus on plot and substance, and perhaps give them something to chew on afterwards.
(Above) Writer-director James Thoo’s Trouble Came is an original play that aims to bring back the culture of independent theatre productions. Its themes of mental health, and coping with the stress of urban living have resonated with its cast of actors. WAYD caught up with them at a rehearsal to uncover their tips on dealing with stress.
A fully self-funded production
One reason I chose to do this at all comes down to a question I get asked all the time by those who attend my writing classes: “What is the best way to sell a script?”
And I always answer the same way: don’t worry about selling a script. Worry about getting better at your craft. How? Write another script. Or? Go and make something.
Go and make something — nobody likes to hear that. It is difficult. It is expensive. It is risky. Especially if you have no choice but to make something yourself (and you’re in my class), you probably don’t have any experience.
“But without trying, or putting our own skin in the game, we will never be forced to improve. We will never understand the pain of defeat that is necessary to drive success. ”
Mr James Thoo, Writer and Director, Trouble Came
It is also a lot of work. An article could be written just about the one week I spent, in an effort to save money, trying and failing to build the set myself. It could be titled, “The day the Salvation Army unexpectedly received enough drywall to build a small city”.
But without trying, or putting our own skin in the game, we will never be forced to improve. We will never understand the pain of defeat that is necessary to drive success.
(Above) Actor Kimberly Chan, who plays Melanie, reacts when she gets an unexpected drop-in from her sister Julia, played by Kimberley Kiew. Steven Murphy plays her husband John, who is ever ready with to man-splain away her “depression”. PHOTO: KATHY LIM
If you ask me the best way to sell a script, and I put you in touch with my agent, and set up meetings, how does that help you long-term, other than to ensure that a year from now, you will be asking someone else that very same question?
I’ve always felt it was untenable to look at the arts as a business to acquire entry into, and better to think of crafting stories as a skill set to acquire.
As long as arts practitioners wait for someone else’s approval to tell them what and how to write, pieces that emerge will only make sense on a spreadsheet, without reaching the soul.
We all can inspire each other. Everyone has an idea that is more interesting, or better thought out, or considered than I do. But if they’re just sitting on it trying to figure out how to sell that idea then I, or anyone else, will likely never know.
(Above) Cast and crew of “Trouble Came” (L-R): Kimberly Chan (Melanie), Steven Murphy (John), Nicole Shaan (assistant director), Monil SJ (Patel), Kimberley Kiew (Julia), James Thoo (writer-director), Hamza Qaiser (Man at gym). Not photographed: Jon Cancio (Cal). PHOTO: KATHY LIM
John F Kennedy famously mused, a rising tide lifts all boats. The more art that is being created (and taken seriously), the more we all have to be better.
It’s important to me to try to set an example. Take that risk. I have never directed a play before. In truth, I never intended to even be a director. I wanted to cast actors who had been experiencing a dearth of roles as smaller-sized theatre productions diminished.
But I also hope that the tide now is not where the tide is when my children are old enough to appreciate or to want to make art.
So as I rekindled the black box approach, a few close collaborators that I’d met through teaching, or seen in small shows over the years, and I, decided that the production needed to be fully self-funded.
Waiting around for other forms of finance would mean subjecting the play to the agenda of funders.
(Photo above) “Trouble Came” explores the often limited vocabulary that we assign to emotions, and explores the stress that comes with trying to keep up with other people’s ideas of perfection.
PHOTO: KATHY LIM
Trouble Came represents my desire to be responsible for any success or failure that I may have. If the play I wrote, directed, and staged with the help of a few people I love and trust is a success, then I hope young artists will see that they can do that too. If it turns out to be a monumental failure and everybody laughs at me, then they will also see that I’m still standing afterward.
Embarrassed, maybe. But better experienced, better educated, and better qualified to make the art that I want to make. Which I still will be, just the same.
THE BLACK BOX PRODUCTION
Addressing the modern malaise of keeping up with unreasonable perfection portrayed in social media, James Thoo wrote and directed Trouble Came, a comedy about how far we will go to become someone else’s version of “happy”. The play will be staged at the Black Box at Goodman Arts Centre, Block M Level 1, 90 Goodman Road, Singapore 439053. Get tickets for the all-original production at http://bit.ly/troublecame. Mr Thoo is co-founder of Brango Productions, and author of Palooka: 12 Rounds to Fatherhood (2020). Follow on Instagram @brangoproductions, and Facebook @brangoproductions for updates.